Full disclosure, I’m personal friends with an actor in this production.
Fuller disclosure, I would never hesitate to give my friends a bad review.
This musical has everything. Big dreams, small towns, mistaken identities, fame, fortune, life lessons, murder. Let me try to create a one-sentence synopsis using cross-generational references: June Cleaver is the perfect mother to young Shirley Temple until P.T. Barnum knocks on the door and Shirley becomes a lot less adorable and a lot more Rosemary’s Baby. The show has more nuance than that, but you get the idea. Oh, and it’s really funny and there’s great music and it raises big questions about helicopter parenting and human empathy. In novice hands this show would be a disaster. It has a thousand challenges and a million points at which it could go wrong... but Theatre Elision’s production went right, again and again and again.
Ruthless is a relatively new musical (written in 1992 and revamped in 2015). It’s witty, accessible, and smart. It demands great acting, great singing, and focused direction. It does not demand elaborate staging or theatrical production of any kind. All of this is exactly what Theatre Elision delivered with a ‘semi-staged’ reading of the piece (actors held scripts but seemed completely memorized). The relatively small stage of the Howard Conn Theater was set with colorful chairs, a keyboard, and a drum set. The cast of six female actors wore costumes with minimal changes between scenes. There were no lighting changes or audio amplification. The production was simple which, in my opinion, was the perfect treatment for this show. From the opening scene, the jokes were fast paced, and the wit was sharp. The tremendous singing and masterful acting consumed all of my attention. I wouldn’t have had the capacity to pay attention to set pieces or clever lighting if they were present, or perhaps I would have paid attention to those and lost track of the amazing work happening live.
Leading lady (and company vocal director) Christine Wade opened the show with charisma that could fill a theater of any size. Her effortless singing and brilliant acting (with only a spatula and telephone as her initial scene partners) started the show with a promise of mastery. Her ‘child’ (adult Bethany McCade) embodied the role of an 8-year old diva with such a convincing performance that I found myself laughing too loud at each of her profane screams. The entire cast was flawless; Ruthie Baker, Greta Grosch, Susan Hofflander, and Deidre Cochran all inhabited their characters with mastery. Each presented a perfectly consistent character in both acting and singing. The 2-piece band provided an accompaniment of incredible versatility: Despite the simple instrumentation no songs felt lacking. I was startled at the level of talent on that stage.
If you’re not familiar with this show (which I wasn’t), check it out… although checking it out will be difficult because the cast recording doesn’t seem to be available digitally and there’s no video to be found (although on Monday it was announced that the show will be receiving its British premiere this spring so maybe check out the touring production in 4-5 years). As a composition, it’s something of a masterpiece. Taking overt and covert inspiration from older stories with female protagonists (Gypsy, Mame, The Women, The Bad Seed). It spends most of its time sounding like a combination of musicals from the 50s and 70s, which sounds like a terrible idea when I say it out loud, but it’s written with such expertise that the listener isn’t left with a feeling of bygone eras but with a direct line to the human condition. The assorted musical styles are archetypes we instantly understand and can instantly bypass into their social connotations of 2018. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to understand the cutesy housewife music of Judy nor the pessimistic tunes of Miss Hannigan (oops!) I mean, Miss Thorn. It does, though, demand a great deal of thought why these characters are timeless. Perhaps the cranky schoolteacher, the overbearing mother, and the scarily-dedicated child are standard characters not because playwrights are lazy but because they’re characters from the real world where you and I live. The on-stage characters are almost cartoon-like exaggerations and their interactions build to a beautiful cautionary tale that pulls at real heartstrings and raises real questions. Questions like: Is it more kind to endlessly encourage a child (perhaps with unrealistic expectations) or to help them understand the real world (perhaps stifling their dreams)? At what age do we grow into (or out of) cutthroat capitalism? Are career ambitions the polar opposite of empathy? Does living vicariously through your children ever go well? If you have answers to any of these questions, please write a play of your own and I’ll happily review it.
The concept of a staged reading could appear less impressive than a fully staged production but (from afar at least) it seems like the only possibility for the improbable pace at which Theatre Elision is presenting work. Here in their 2017-2018 season they’re performing a different full-length work approximately every month. With Christine Wade always in a leading role and Harrison Wade always at the piano they’re approaching superhuman speed. Personally, I prefer simple stagings of great pieces every month to the alternative of fully staged complex productions a couple times per year. This philosophy (or perhaps niche branding) is perfect for Theatre Elision – leave the large production shows to the Guthrie and traveling productions but make a name for themselves as the preeminent curators of lesser-known musical theater, which they have done quickly and with great success. I’ve seen great staging and complex orchestras, right now I want great stories and great actors and that’s what Theatre Elision is offering. I hope there’s enough audience in town that feels the same way. Back in October I reviewed another work by this company and stated (to quote myself) “When all these elements [great compositions paired with this company’s strengths in great venues] align, Theatre Elision will be something truly special. I would tell everyone I know to attend productions of ‘art musical theater’ by female writers in beautiful venues.” IT’S HAPPENING! THEY’RE DOING IT! GO SEE PRODUCTIONS OF ART MUSICAL THEATER BY FEMALE WRITERS IN BEAUTIFUL VENUES!
A final thought: This cast of 6 women was an incredible thing to see. It seemed like a novelty in light of the many “golden era” (I hate that term) musical theater productions it spoofed. Typically Captain von Trapp or Henry Higgins or another white man is always expected to save the day. With zero male characters on stage there were no gender roles to be had and it opened up the possibilities of every character in an amazing way. Also, it should be said that these expectations point out my naivety in the existing repertoire. This show’s referenced predecessors have a strong tradition of female leads with which I'm mostly unfamiliar. Yes, many famous musicals (and movies) rely heavily on standard gender roles but many others do not. I love Gypsy but I’m not very familiar with Mame, The Women, or The Bad Seed. Looks like I’ve got some very entertaining research to do.